Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art @ Barbican

This is a fabulous exhibition, packed with wonderful paintings, photos, films, drawings, posters and all kinds of memorabilia connected with a dozen or so avant-garde and trend-setting nightclubs around the world from the 1880s to the 1960s, And as well as all the lovely works and ideas and stories, it raises a number of questions, which I’ll address at the end of this review…

First the clubs and their stories. The Barbican exhibition space is laid out not as ‘rooms’ but as successive alcoves or spaces running off the first floor gallery, from which you look down onto the ground floor which can be divided up into various areas, or opened up to make one through-space (as they did for the Lee Krasner exhibition).

There are eight of these room-sized alcoves upstairs, and in this exhibition each one tells the story of one or two famous nightclubs which became a focus for artists, or was designed and decorated by artists, in various countries from the 1880s onwards…

Paris

The Chat Noir nightclub was the most famous of the new generation of nightclubs which opened in the Montmartre region of Paris in the 1880s. The darkened interior combined Gothic, Neo-Classical and Japanese features, in fact it contained so many artworks some people nicknamed it the Louvre of Montmartre.

Reopening of the Chat Noir Cabaret by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1896) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1885 a shadow theatre was installed on the Chat Noir’s third floor in a room hung with drawings by Edgar Degas, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Here artist Henri Riviere and collaborators staged what ended up being a series of 40 increasingly elaborate shadow plays. The exhibition features photos and drawings of the Chat Noir, along with some fabulous posters, and a big display case of some of the elaborately designed zinc silhouettes used in the plays, explaining how they were made, what characters they represent, along with some of the books, kind of novelisations of the plays they staged, including music and illustrations

The shadow theatre’s owner Rodolphe Salis took it on an international tour in the 1890s, inspiring a generation if avant-garde artists.

Meanwhile, the strange and dramatic dances of Loïe Fuller staged at the Folies Bergère in the 1890s were trail-blazing experiments in costume, light and movement. Fuller held long sticks attached to swathes of fabric to enormously increase the swirling effects of her dances. She was a real innovator who set up a laboratory to experiment with spectacular effects.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured her performances in a series of delicately hand-coloured lithographs, she inspired early film-makers like Edison and Lumiere brothers, and the alcove devoted to her also has a set of huge and very evocative posters by the great poster-maker of the era, Jules Chéret.

Folies Bergers by Jules Chéret

Vienna

The Cabaret Fledermaus was opened in Vienna in 1907 by the Wiener Werkstätte. It is a total art work in which every element – chairs, tables, light hanging, stairs and the brightly coloured tiled walls – each tile featuring a unique fantastical motif – were designed to create an overwhelming effect. Joseph Hoffmann designed the overall concept and commissioned the Wiener Keramik workshop to produce the tiles.  The club hosted satirical plays, poetry readings, avant-garde dance and a variety of musical events, including a performance of The Speckled Egg by the 21-year-old Oskar Kokoschka, a puppet show based on an Indian folk tale – the exhibition includes the fragile, original hand-made puppets.

Postcard showing the Interior view of the bar at the Cabaret Fledermaus (1907) Collection of Leonard A. Lauder

London

Not to be left behind, some London artists banded together to set up The Cave of the Golden Calf in 1912, an underground haunt in Soho set up by Frida Uhl Strindberg. It was located in ‘a dingy basement below a cloth merchant’s warehouse just off Regent Street, where her artist friends Spencer Gore, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, and Eric Gill contributed to the futurist and Russian ballet-inspired art that covered the club’s interiors. It was also, apparently, possibly the first ‘gay bar’ in the modern sense and was certainly conceived by its creator, as an avant-garde and artistic venture.

This section included designs for the interior by British artists Spencer Gore and Eric Gill, as well as Wyndham Lewis’s highly stylised programmes for the eclectic performance evenings. I came across Wyndham Lewis at school and have never stopped loving his savage angular art, either satirising English society or brutally conveying the reality of the Great War, which he saw from the front as a bombardier. For me his programme designs were the best thing in this section.

Study for a mural decoration for the Cave of the Golden Calf by Spencer Gore (1912) © Tate, London 2019

Zurich

Zurich during the war is famous as the birthplace of the Cabaret Voltaire (1916), which in its short existence (February to July 1916) hosted far-out Dada events and happenings in a deliberately absurdist environment. The exhibition includes samples of absurdist sound poetry and fantastical masks that deconstruct body and language, as used in the anarchic performances of original Dadaists Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings and Marcel Janco. Later Jean Arp recalled ‘pandemonium in an overcrowded, flamboyant room’ with works by Picasso or Arp hanging on the wall while Hennings sang anti-war songs there were puppet shows, improvised dances, African drums, and booming ‘poetry without words’ was yelled through a megaphone by people wearing silly costumes. This is a 1960s reconstruction:

Rome

The curators select two clubs from the post-war period in Rome which demonstrated the hold of the dynamic new art movement of Futurism in Italy in the 1920s.

In 1921 Futurist artist Giacomo Balla was commissioned by Ugo Paladini to create a Futurist nightclub and the result was Bal Tic Tac, which used Futurist angular design to create a wonderfully colour-saturated designs for the club’s interior. The exterior of the building was sensible neo-classical, the interior deliberately undermined this with brightly coloured interlacing shapes meant to capture the movement of dancers. It was one of the first places in Rome to promote the new American jazz music. A sign on the door read, ‘If you don’t drink champagne – go away!’

Also in the same room is a display devoted to drawings and furnishings for Fortunato Depero’s spectacular inferno-inspired Cabaret del Diavolo (1922) which occupied three floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell. Depero’s flamboyant tapestry writhes with dancing demons, expressing the club’s motto ‘Tutti all’inferno!!! (Everyone to hell!!!)’.

Black and White Little Devils: Dance of the Devils by Fortunato Depero (1922) © DACS 2019. Archivo Depero, Rovereto. Courtesy Mart – Archivio Fotografico e Mediateca

Weimar Germany

After Paris in the Belle Epoque, probably the most famous era of nightclubs was in Weimar Germany between the wars, the exhibition doesn’t disappoint, with a selection of paintings and drawings of decadent German nightclubs by the likes of George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, Grosz – as usual – for me at any rate, emerging as the star among the men.

But, living in the era when we do, the exhibition goes out of its way to promote the work of ‘often overlooked female artists’, such as Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler.

Jeanne Mammen is really good. Her drawings and paintings are recognisably from the same time and place as the guys, but feel a little softer, more rounded, her figures are a little more like humans and less like the porcine animals of Grosz or Dix. Also her use of colour, particularly watercolour, the colours washing or dribbling or spilling over to create colour and life and action and depth. She depicted almost only women, many set in overtly lesbian nightclubs, in fact some of the wonderful pictures here were illustrations to a 1931 book titled A Guide To Depraved Berlin.

She Represents by Jenna Mammen (1928) published in Simplicissimus magazine Volume 32, Number 47

One of the most purely beautiful paintings in the exhibition is Karl Hofer’s iconic portrait of a couple of Tiller Girls, the Tiller Girls being dancers who did high-precision, high-kicking routines.

Tiller Girls by Karl Hofer (before 1927) Kunsthalle Emden – Stiftung Henri und Eske Nannen © Elke Walford, Fotowerkstatt Hamburg

Interestingly, a social theorist write in the same year this was painted, 1927, that the uncanny precision and interchangeability of the girls mirrored the large-scale mechanical methods of manufacturing which were then coming in and capturing people’s imaginations: ‘the hands of the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls’.

Strasbourg

Meanwhile in Strasbourg, Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp worked together to create the L’Aubette (1926–28), conceived as the ultimate ‘deconstruction of architecture’, a highly modernist, strict, functional design, with bold geometric abstraction as its guiding principle. The vast building housed a cinema-ballroom, bar, tearoom, billiards room, restaurant and more, each designed as immersive environments.

The Ciné-bal at Café L’Aubette, Strasbourg, designed by Theo van Doesburg (1926-28) Image: Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut

Harlem

During World War One a Great Migration began of African-Americans from the Deep South to escape segregation, poverty and violent racism. They came north, to northern cities like Chicago and New York, and brought with them new music and sounds, specifically jazz. In New York many settled in the uptown Harlem district which underwent a great artistic flowering of music, poetry, dance, art and more, which eventually became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition includes a fascinating street map of Harlem (by E. Simms Campbell) which shows all the different nightclubs and the types of jazz to be found there. The most evocative thing here is the movie made around Duke Ellington’s jazz suite, Symphony In Black, which was intended to convey a panorama of African-American life.

All the static artefacts struggle to compete with the evocativeness of a) the music and b) some of the scenes from the movie. But what comes close is the fabulous silhouette art of Aaron Douglas who is represented by paintings and prints and illustrations to a book of blues lyrics by Langston Hughes. Vivid, beautifully crisp and rhythmic, it’s no wonder the curators chose one of his images as the exhibition poster.

Dance by Aaron Douglas (1930) © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

I’d like to know a lot more about Douglas, every one of the half dozen or so images on show here are excellent. They also made me realise the black and white silhouette art of Kara Walker, the contemporary Afro-American artists, is not as original as I thought it was.

So far all these settings and stories and artists have been European and American, part of a familiar narrative of Euro-American modernism which most of us are pretty familiar with. But this huge exhibition has a few surprises in store. First, the non-Western subjects.

Mexico City

Two and a half thousand miles south of New York City is Mexico City. Here, in the aftermath of the prolonged Mexican Revolution, in the early 1920s, a radical new art movement emerged named Estridentismo which sought to overthrow established bourgeois modes and create a new poetry which combined the folk fiction of the peasants with the reality of urban life in the big cities. How to unite rural peasants and urban workers – it was Lenin’s problem, Mao’s problem, Guevara’s problem, and the founders of the movement – Ramón Alva de la Canal, Manuel Maples Arce and Germán Cueto – discussed this and much more at the Café de Nadie (Nobody’s Café) in Mexico City.

One of them came up with the characteristically inane motto: ‘Chopin to the electric chair!’ (characteristic for the post-war era of anti-bourgeois rhetoric)

Well, the twentieth century was to send many poets, painters, composers and musicians to the gulag, to the death camp and the execution cell, so in a roundabout way they got their wish.

El Café de Nadie by Ramón Alva de la Canal (c. 1970) © DACS, 2019. Courtesy Private Collection

Later in the 1920s, some of the group plus new members set up the ¡30-30! group (named after a popular rifle cartridge) with a socialist agenda of bringing art to the masses, and they organised lots of exhibitions and events in 1928 to 30. In January 1929 they staged an ambitious interactive exhibition-cum-event in a large carpa or low-cost tent used for travelling circuses. The Carpa Amaro event featured many woodprints, a deliberately cheap, affordable form.

The exhibition includes photos of these young firebrands, alongside a case of handmade masks made by German Cueto, and then a wall of thirty or so of the woodcuts which featured in the carpa exhibition by artists such as Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma and Fermin Revueltas Sanchez, ranging in subject matter from revolutionary leaders to suckling pigs via many portraits of working people.

Viva el 30-30 by Fernando Leal (1928)

Nigeria

Then to my surprise there is a whole section about Nigeria, specifically about the highly influential Mbari Artists and Writers Club, founded in the early 1960s in Nigeria.

The exhibition focuses on two of the club’s key locations, in Ibadan and Osogbo, describing how they were founded as laboratories for postcolonial artistic experimentation, providing a platform for a dazzling range of activities – including open-air dance and theatre performances, featuring ground breaking Yoruba operas by Duro Ladipo and Fela Kuti’s Afro-jazz; poetry and literature readings; experimental art workshops; and pioneering exhibitions by African and international artists such as Colette Omogbai, Twins Seven-Seven, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Uche Okeke.

There were some striking paintings here, I appreciated the swirling designs of Twins Seven-Seven but was drawn to the three works by Ibrahim (later discovering these are talismanic pieces of post-colonial African art).

Self-Portrait of Suffering by Ibrahim El-Salahi (1961) Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany © Ibrahim El-Salahi

There was a very interesting film playing, Art In A Changing Society made back in 1964 by Francis Speed and Ulli Beier, which was a TV documentary-style introduction to the art and architecture, design and dance and music of post-colonial Nigeria but which I cannot, alas, find on the internet.

Tehran

Lastly, and most unexpected of all, we come to Tehran in 1966 where the club Rasht 29 emerged as a creative space for avant-garde painters, poets, musicians and filmmakers to meet and discuss. There were spontaneous performances and works by artists like Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram hung in the lounge while a soundtrack including Led Zeppelin and the Beatles played constantly.

Best of the works here were the three or four works by Parviz Tanalovi, who incorporated industrial leftovers and detritus into picture sculptures i.e picture sized and shaped objects, which hang on a wall, but which come out of the picture frame into three dimensions. Apparently many of his works incorporate a grille which looks to me like the symbol of a prison but apparently refers to the traditional design of a saqqakhaneh, the ‘sacred commemorative water fountains’ which gave their name to the artistic movement they all belonged to Saqqakhaneh.

Heech and Hands by Parviz Tanavoli (1964) Collection Parviz Tanavoli © Parviz Tanavoli


1. Including the non-Western clubs

As you can see, it’s a lot to take in. I find it hard to keep in mind all of the aspects of Modernism across Europe and the States – bringing in new non-Western countries is a brave and admirable move – it is good to  learn about Ibrahim El-Salahi and Parviz Tanalovi, in particular.

But it begs quite a few questions:

1. Why do we get to see so very little non-Western art in all our major art galleries. Mexico, Nigeria, Iran – these are all major countries with huge populations and long cultural heritages. Yet you only rarely hear anything about them.

2. Do they really fit into this exhibition? Not only was the Western stuff unified by coming from a common European artistic heritage, but it was unified in date as well, showing the flow of thought from the late-nineteenth century through the Great War and into the inter-war period: it covers the period roughly described as Modernism. Whereas the Nigeria and Tehran stuff suddenly leaps into the 1960s, a completely different period with a completely different vibe.

So not only do I know next to nothing about Nigerian or Persian traditional art, but I am not told anything about Nigerian or Iranian art of the 1900s, 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s to help put the sudden focus in the clubs of the 1960s in focus.

2. Recreating the nightclub vibe

There is one massive aspect of the show I haven’t mentioned yet – which is that, having processed through the historical exhibition and display up on the balcony, the visitor then goes back down to the ground floor and discovers that, in the central gallery space, the curators have recreated some of the art clubs which we’ve been reading about. Specifically, there is:

  • Chat Noir a white room with 7 or 8 of the big metal stencils fromt he Chat Noir hanging from the ceiling and slowly rotating in the mild breeze and throwing shadows on the wall, all to the contemporaneous music of Debussy and Satie – a very calm, peaceful, meditative room
  • Cabaret Fledermaus a striking reconstruction of the Viennese nightclub in which the walls and bar are studded with brightly coloured tiles

Recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, Vienna, 1907

  • L’Aubette a reconstruction of L’Aubette, the semi-industrial, architectural complex in Strasbourg, complete with cinema projection running a series of contemporary films, including Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin and Metropolis

Recreation of the cinema-ballroom L’Aubette by Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp

  • Mbari Clubs and a nice space set off from the corridor by a barrier or wall made out of sculpted patterns in a Nigerian style, inside which was playing a video of Nigerian youths dancing

You can see that a great deal or time, trouble and expense has gone into recreating each of these ‘zones’. But.. The most obvious thing about most nightclubs is, or was, that they were traditionally subterranean, smoky, often very noisy and very cramped and packed environments, in which people are drinking too much and laughing and joking and often having to shout over the very loud music, and laughing and going off to the bogs or stopping for a snog on the stars or chatting up the barmaid or barman, and asking someone for a light. They are/were places of intense hectic human interaction.

It was an ambitious, maybe quixotic notion, to try and recreate all that human bustle, noise, sweat and booziness in… the uniquely silent, white, perfectly scrubbed and essentially sterile environment of the modern art gallery. Nothing could really have been more dead than the Mbari Clubs little zone, completely empty when I walked in, admired the Yoruba wall paintings, and walked out again. Or the loving recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, beautiful coloured tiles and all, and utterly empty and utterly silent when I walked through it.

Conclusions

This is a fascinating insight into an enduringly interesting subject, a subject which has inspired all manner of artists across numerous countries and periods.

In fact, maybe you could think of The Nightclub as being an entire genre, a very twentieth century genre, as The Nude or The Landscape were for previous centuries.

And I admire the way the curators have made it so multinational, showing the same impulse at work across multiple cultures and continents.

Like previous Barbican shows it is so packed as to be overwhelming, bringing together over 350 works rarely seen in the UK, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, films and archival material.

And yet I was really perplexed by the recreations. The young woman who took my ticket explained that they have been having music evenings, with live bands playing. Maybe that helps, maybe that lifts it a bit. But it was eerie walking through perfect recreations of places which were meant to be temples to human interaction in all its smelly, sweaty, boozy, smoke-ridden, music-drowned glory but were now empty and silent – turned, quite literally, into museum pieces.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop @ Tate Modern

Pop Art is not exactly a neglected movement. As recently as two years ago the Barbican hosted a comprehensive exhibition of Pop Design while at the same time Tate Modern was hosting a vast Roy Lichtenstein retrospective. In the spring of 2014 Tate Modern did a big Richard Hamilton show and earlier this year the Barbican’s exhibition about artists’ personal collections devoted a room each to the artifacts hoarded by Andy Warhol and Peter Blake. Who hasn’t heard of Warhol, seen the Elvis or Marilyn silk screen paintings or doesn’t know about Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper cover?

In this blockbuster show, The EY Exhibition: The World Goes Pop, Tate Modern turns its back on these well-worn artists and familiar images to examine the impact of pop everywhere outside the bubble of Britain and America, taking a comprehensive look at Pop Art from around the world. Thus the show brings together over 100 colourful, exuberant works from Latin America and Asia, from Europe and the Middle East.

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection) © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Ushio Shinohara, Doll Festival (1966) Fluorescent paint, oil, plastic board on plywood
Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamamura Collection). © Ushio and Noriko Shinohara

Art in the USA and Britain was essentially free, artists could more or less say or do anything and had the machinery of pop music and consumer adverts to play off against, to incorporate into their work and (the Beatles, the Velvet Underground) to help propagate their images.

If the exhibition says one thing it is how untrue this was of most of the rest of the world, where whole populations and their artists languished under all manner of dictatorships and repression: the entire communist bloc frozen by Soviet domination, southern Europe and a lot of Latin American nations ruled by traditionalist military juntas, African nations torn by civil wars (Biafra 1967-70), Pakistan heading towards the catastrophic Bangladesh genocide (1971), China about to experience the persecution and chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the war in Vietnam spilling over into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. And looming behind it all, the ongoing Cold War confrontation between the superpowers with the ever-present threat of nuclear apocalypse.

Pop offered a new idiom with which to capture the absurdity of living in a society increasingly dominated by adverts for glossy lifestyle products while the whole world could be blown up at any moment.

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) Acrylic on canvas MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund Photo: Tony Coll © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Joan Rabascall, Atomic Kiss (1968) MACBA Collection. Barcelona City Council Fund. Photo: Tony Coll. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Thus the global Pop Art the curators have gathered here is far more confrontational, troubled and often explicitly political than the Campbell soup tins and dated album covers of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. If Pop was an orgiastic celebration of the fabulousness of consumer culture here in the West, in most other places it was a language of protest, using the language and imagery of consumer goods and popular culture to satirise the repressive regimes of the artist’s homeland, to ironically comment on the shallow values of the fabulous West, which very often shaded into mild or not so mild anti-American sentiment.

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Bombs in Love 1962 Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

Kiki Kogelnik, Bombs in Love (1962) Kevin Ryan/Kiki Kogelnik Foundation Vienna/New York

The 100+ works are packed with ideas and references, but several themes emerge strongly:

  • Satirising American consumerism The basic premise of Pop Art is its re-use of the explosion of new consumer products, advertising and popular culture in the post-war USA, seen at its most fatuous in the 1950s, and satirised and mocked from the mid-1950s onwards. The early 1960s saw the creation of several iconic pop images including Warhol’s Marilyn silks and Lichtenstein’s Wham. The effects of the post-war boom and the use of imagery from popular culture – cartoons, film posters, adverts, TV stills – to celebrate and/or undercut it ripple outwards from the Anglo heartland: what is loving homage in the States (cans and cartoons) becomes mild mockery in England, and turns to satire, scorn and sometimes overtly anti-American feeling, in further flung countries, typified by French artist Bernard Rancillac‘s savege At Last, a Silhouette Slimmed to the Waist.
  • Pro-revolution pro-communist imagery, texts, works, ideas – power to the people, Maoism, the cult of Che Guevara, exemplified here by Henri Cueco‘s Large Protest, a room-sized sculpture using comic-strip silhouettes cast in metal of figures enacting the glorious Revolution.
  • Anti-communist works voicing rebellion against the dead hand of actual communist regimes in the countries of the Eastern bloc eg Jerzy Zielinski‘s Without Rebellion or Sanja Iveković‘s Sweet violence.
  • Feminism 1960s-style eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellÁngela GarcíaMari ChordàJana Želibská.
  • The Triumph of Youth

1. The Revolution

Revolutionary sentiment was in the air throughout the 1960s, leading up to the strikes and civil disorder across much of Europe which climaxed in ‘events’ in Paris in May 1968, when students joined with striking workers to create a crisis which came close to overthrowing the government. Throughout the 60s and well into the 1970s, the rhetoric of revolution dominated the thinking of many writers and artists.

The wall labels and the audioguide reflect this, echoing the rhetoric of the time and reiterating the rather samey sentiments about this or that ‘radical’ artwork ‘subverting’ or ‘engaging with’ or ‘ironising’ the values of ‘patriarchal’, ‘capitalist’ or ‘consumer’ culture. Each time I read another label about a work which encouraged the overthrow of capitalism, supported the Revolution, heralded the dawn of a classless society, romanticised guerilla fighters and marching strikers and the May 1968 événements, I thought how very, very old all this now sounds and how completely these attitudes and approaches have been vanquished.

In our time, from China to Brazil, hyper-consumer capitalism rules the world, underpinned by the all-powerful banks, implemented by the all-pervading digital culture which most of us have voluntarily signed up to. Instead of overthrowing American corporations, we have welcomed them into every aspect of our lives (Google est.1998, turnover $66 billion, Facebook est. 2004, 1.5 billion users, Twitter 300 million users). The often fading paintings, creaking sculptures and flickery videos on display here come from a distant time when people thought there was an alternative to the finance capitalism and all-encompassing American corporations which now dominate our lives.

2. Communist oppression

Looking back, one of the massive contradictions or ironies of the period was that all the radical artists in the West wanted a communist revolution to overthrow beastly American capitalism, while all the dissidents in the East wanted to escape from the stifling straitjacket of inefficient, repressive, brutal and philistine communist regimes to the wonderful freedom of the West.

The exhibition displays works from the two halves of Europe (and the world) next to each other as if they were both the same kind of ‘subversion’ and criticism, but I don’t think they were: the conditions of their production and the mindsets of their producers were drastically different.

Anti-capitalist movements linger on into our day as ineffectual student-style groups like the Occupy movement; ‘third wave’ feminism endures in all sorts of forms; but the struggles of dissident artists and samizdat writers under communist regimes have completely disappeared and it’s hard to now recall what that world was like.

I can discuss feminism with my teenage daughter because she is learning about the exploitation of women at school, I can discuss the power of multinational banks and corporations with my teenage son because he’s got accounts with some of them and reads about their tax avoidance, criminal miss-selling of products etc on a daily basis.

But if I try to explain that when I was growing up all of Eastern Europe was under Russian communist control, and enormous fences topped with barbed wire formed the border between capitalism and communism, that anyone trying to escape over them was blown up by the landmines or shot dead by the guards, that artists and writers who protested against the state were locked up in psychiatric institutions or disappeared into prison camps, they look at me as if I’m mad.

There are plenty of artists from the Eastern bloc in this show – one even has a room dedicated to him, the Romanian Cornel Brudaşcu. But I felt the extremely difficult, often dangerous, conditions of producing any kind of art in the Eastern Bloc could well have justified a room to itself, a space which really tried to recreate the terrible claustrophobia and fear of the time. This could have described and examined the situations in the different countries (Poland, East Germany, Slovakia etc), whose regimes and cultural traditions were often quite different. This would have given much more depth when it came to describing the strategies specific artists adopted to circumvent the censors and the authorities.

Maybe there are the seeds of an entirely different exhibition here: ‘The Art of the Eastern Bloc 1945-90’.

3. Feminism

Feminism, the women’s movement, women’s liberation, is a very big presence in the show, with three of the ten rooms dedicated to women’s issues, women making up about 26 of the 60 or so artists, and a lot, if not all, the women artists, ‘engaging’ one way or another with the problems of gender.

In the 1960s women intellectuals and artists began to rebel against all kinds of constraints society placed on them: against the way advertising used women’s bodies to sell products, against the way society confined women to stereotyped gender roles – having to be ‘the mother’, ‘the good housewife’, ‘the perfect hostess’ and so on – while depriving them of involvement in a great swathe of social activity, from business to politics. Society was dominated by all-male establishments which women challenged in all manner of ways, from the courts to the classroom.

What emerges from this exhibition is that many of the women artists featured here seemed to think that merely being more forthright about the reality of women’s bodies was a kind of ‘subversive’ and liberating act – that if women themselves created, controlled and published images of the female body, it would liberate them from the prison-house of the ‘male gaze’ and assert the autonomy of female sexuality and therefore of the female subject.

For example, according to the wall label, Evelyne Axell (Belgian, 1935-72), thought that ‘Space represented an emancipation site for women’. Her striking work, Valentine, represents Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who on June 16, 1963, became the first woman in space. The helmet taped to the screen represents the space part, the stripper-style silhouette with the fabric rising up off the picture as it comes unzipped to reveal her breasts and pubic hair beneath, represent her female sexuality. She is, according to the commentary, ‘a feminist heroine and a monument to female eroticism’.

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Valentine 1966 Collection of Philippe Axell Photo: Paul Louis © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966) Collection of Philippe Axell. Photo: Paul Louis. © Evelyne Axell/DACS 2015

I understand celebrating a woman pioneer. I understand and like the helmet tacked to the canvas. But I didn’t so much understand why the outline of a sexy woman whose zipper is coming undone Austen Powers-style is liberating. To me, it conforms to all the sexist stereotypes of the era, precisely the commodification of an absurdly idealised woman-as-sex-object which I thought we were meant to disapprove of.

Fifty years later any sense of irony or empowerment at the display of naked women has surely long vanished. Instead of the ‘subversion’ and ‘irony’ which the commentary and labels attributed to much of this imagery, I just registered lots of female artists depicting the female body, legs, thighs, breasts and a number of vulvas, in photos, silhouettes, realistic or abstract painting, in satirical videos and even – strikingly – in mirrors (see Jana Želibská below).

Presumably, at some point, it dawned on women artists and women more generally, that displaying images of naked or semi-naked women in ‘art’ really just amounts to displaying naked or semi-naked women. The particular audience who view them (‘art lovers’) are just a tiny, statistically insignificant, sub-set of the great naked-women-viewing public, who don’t get the joke. It doesn’t change anything. In fact, surely it’s just another way of packaging and commodifying the female body.

4. Young and old

The exhibition’s achievement in including women artists and foregrounding women’s issues tends to mask another 1960s theme, maybe the theme of the 1960s, so that it goes strangely unremarked. It was the decade of Youth. In all spheres the 1960s saw the rebellion of the young against the old. ‘Hope I die before I get old‘ and ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30‘ were the catch phrases of the time. So for me the striking thing isn’t that there were lots of breasts, bellies, thighs, vulvas, sexy silhouettes and licking lips on show – it is that they are all young, fit and nubile breasts and hips etc.

Dorothée Selz could create a series of photos of herself copying the poses of scantily-clad glamour models from magazines because she herself looks like a model. The outlines of women which dominate Jana Želibská‘s feminist work Kandarya-Mahadeva look like they’re from the title sequence of a James Bond movie.

A lot of the dolly bird nudity on show here doesn’t make much sense if viewed through a feminist paradigm because it seems so obviously self-defeating: but it does make sense if seen as part of the overthrow of the Fat and Old by the Young and Beautiful. In this context, taking off your clothes proves you are on the right side, immediately shows you are on the side of the young and beautiful, man, we’re going to get rid of war and capitalism and all that bourgeois crap, man, and all those creepy sexual hangups our parents had, we’re going to get naked and get high and come together and create world peace.

Thus Evelyne Axell‘s work The Pretty Month of May in which she paints herself naked, is surely a failure if it’s seen as a ‘feminist’ work, seeking to ‘subvert the male gaze’, since all I can see is a young naked woman whose patch of black pubic hair deliberately emphasises her sexuality. But it does make sense if we recapture the spirit of 1968 and see it as a typical gesture of openness and honesty and frankness about sexual pleasure, all of which (at the time) put her on the side of the angels against the stuffy, repressive older generation.

(For the attitude to parents, to businessmen, to accountants in bowler hats, see The Beatles track The Piggies (‘Everywhere there’s little piggies, leading piggy lives/You can see them out to dinner with their piggy wives.’). For the attitude of the cool sexual revolutionaries, listen to Come Together, which ends, as so many songs from this time, in a simulated orgasm. The orgasm was a political gesture, symbolising the overthrow of capitalism/the old/the bourgeoisie and all their controlling repression of sexuality, which should be free and unfettered, shared and liberating.)

5. The missing black artists

The three women curators have included lots of women artists and lengthy explanations of women’s issues throughout. This is a striking achievement and an enjoyable introduction to many artists who were new to me. In fact, all the works I liked best were by women artists eg Judy ChicagoEvelyne AxellDorothée SelzEulàlia Grau to name a few.

But towards the end of the show I realised I hadn’t seen a single black Pop artist. Maybe there weren’t any. And I don’t think there was a single artist from Africa, 10% of the global population in 1970, in a show which is meant to be about global art. a) In the industrialised West, especially America, were there really no black artists who could have been included? b) Was there really no African art which could have been included, especially considering this period saw a large number of independence struggles/civil wars across the continent which would surely have fit into the Mao and Che-themed revolution sections?

Fun

If all this sounds a bit earnest, it is and the wall labels do tend to be full of ‘issues’ and ‘concerns’.

But most of the works themselves are lots of fun – bright, confident, experimental, exuberant – men and women from around the world playing with a western idiom and transmuting it for their own purposes. Some pieces seemed to me weak (I didn’t like the folk art room, the works of Beatriz GonzálezParviz Tanavoli or Raúl Martinez – details below – seemed to me drab and dull); lots of others are great or great fun, for example, the strikingly clear and bold ‘American interiors’ of Icelandic artist Erró – American Interior 1; and much I couldn’t quite decide what I thought, leaving me puzzled or thoughtful. Altogether there is plenty here to discuss and mull over.

Some reviews have criticised the curators’ decision to paint the walls of each room bright primary colours, but I thought it was funky and accurately reflects the dayglo, plastic world of Pop: it is entirely fitting that the final room is completely covered in a tongue-in-cheek ‘subversion’ of consumer capitalism, Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle, made up of multiple copies of the famous cheese logo. As subversion it scores 0 – as funky wallpaper, 10.

And then the shop…

And if you had any lingering doubt about art’s complete inability to change society, you emerge from the last room (‘Consuming Pop’, full of works ‘subverting’ consumer capitalism) into the exhibition shop! Here you can purchase a whole range of desirable consumer products – Pop mugs, Pop posters, Pop tea towels, Pop books, Pop cushions, Pop scarves and Pop bags – to adorn your dream home and impress your friends.


List of artworks

Room 1 – Introduction

Room 2 – Eulàlia Grau (1946-, Spain) and Joe Tilson (English)

Room 3 – Pop politics

Room 4 – Cornel Brudaşcu (1937-, Romania)

It was good to have a room devoted to the enormous subject of art in the communist bloc but I’m not sure the four or five big paintings by Brudaşcu could quite carry that much burden. They are coloured solarisations of images mined from pop sources eg newspaper photos, album covers.

Room 5 – Pop at home

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968) Private Collection Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm © Teresa Burga

Teresa Burga, Cubes (1968), Private Collection. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Galerie Barbara Thumm. © Teresa Burga

Room 6 – Pop bodies

Room 7 – devoted to one work by Jana Želibská (1941-, Czechoslovakia)

  • Kandarya-Mahadeva – based on a temple in India, consists of a massive rectangular pillar constructed of 48 panels, each one depicting the silhouette of a woman’s body in a Bond girl pose, clad in the outline of skimpy bra and panties. BUT the subversive thing is that at the crotch of each woman is embedded a mirror! Ha, gotcha, male gaze! According to the audioguide, the mirrors ‘virtually put a woman’s sexuality right in your face!!!’ Take that, male chauvinist pigs!!
  • The room itself is lined with swags of orange and white paper flowers and the walls painted with enormous baby pink silhouettes of naked women also with big mirrors in the crotch.

I like breasts and vulvas as much as the next man but by this stage I’d seen quite a few, and occasionally it’s nice to think about something else, so it was a relief to walk into a room which was not dominated by images of women’s bodies.

Room 8 – Pop crowd

Room 9 – Folk Pop

Room 10- Consuming Pop

All the walls of this room are covered with the Le Vache Qui Rit wallpaper by Thomas Bayrle. That’s sticking it to international brands! I wonder if Vache qui rit ever approached him to use it.

  • Boris Bućan (1947-, Croatia) Bućan Art – a series of images spelling ART in the styles of various corporate brands. It ‘denounces consumerism and global brands’. a) nice idea, quite funny, though zero impact on brands (unless they rip the idea off for publicity) b) note the Vache qui rit wallpaper in the background.
  • Sanja Iveković (1949-, Croatia) Sweet violence (1974) This five-minute, black-and-white video stitched together adverts from communist Yugoslavia and superimposed prison bars over them, a brave thing to do at the time.
  • Toshio Matsumoto (1932-, Japan) Mona Lisa, experimental 3-minute video using then-revolutionary techniques to phase and overcolour the image.

The final taboo

Trawling through the biographies to create the list above, I came across several women artists saying, sadly and alas, that their work ‘subverting the patriarchy’ and ‘exploring issues of gender and femininity’ are just as relevant – as necessary – today as they were 50 years ago. The rather tiresome quote from Einstein comes to mind: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’

If some of the women artists ‘exploring issues’ around the ‘representation of sexuality and eroticism within a social context’ genuinely think little has changed in 50 years, maybe they should consider changing their tactics. Or consider that there might be some kind of biological basis for the social structures and attitudes they have spent 50 years failing to alter.

Their comments tie up with one of the main learnings from the show, which is the complete failure of all the revolutionary hopes of the majority of the artists. Capitalism wasn’t overthrown. It has a stronger, more pervasive grip on all aspects of our lives than ever before. Everything is being monetised.

Which prompts a further uncomfortable thought: maybe the ultimate taboo in art is not (as one of the wall labels asserts) creating images of the vulva, or of the penis or of shit (Gilbert and George have made some very nice images of shit) or any other bodily parts or functions, come to that.

Maybe the ultimate taboo, the dirty little secret that artists and curators dare not mention, is that art subverts nothing. You can assert that it ‘questions’ and ‘engages with’ and ‘interrogates’ whatever you fancy, till the cows come home – the result is nothing. Nothing except more exhibitions, more commentaries and more audioguides, more subject matter for the ever-increasing numbers of people doing MAs and PhDs in art criticism. A small clique of art professionals who have a vested interest in believing – or persuading or reassuring themselves – that art plays a critical role in society, and isn’t – as all the evidence suggests, as the Tate shop suggests – just a decorative hobby and shopping opportunity for the well-heeled middle classes.

Could it be that there is nothing ‘revolutionary’ or ‘radical’ about art, not today? Soviet art, communist art, conceptual art, dada, surrealism, stuckist art, shit art, minimal art, heads made of blood and handprints of child murderers, piles of bricks and sharks cut in half, all these were done years ago, some over a century ago.

Instead, the audio commentary and wall labels of this show come close to proving that art and art criticism today merely play with ageing tropes of ‘revolutionary’ politics or feminist ‘subversion’, talking a special language to itself about ‘engagement’ and ‘questioning’ and ‘situating issues’ and ‘negotiating paradigms’ – while leaving the actual power structures of society, the economic constraints we all live by, the concentration of money into fewer and fewer hands, the infiltration of every aspect of our lives by surveilling digital technology, the indignities of ageing, the difficulties of earning enough money to pay for rent, heat and food, completely unchanged.

In the commentary of this and other shows about twentieth century art, I get the feeling the curators are nostalgic for a time when art did have some kind of impact, when artists really did suffer for their art, when they genuinely risked being arrest and imprisoned, when art genuinely did ‘subvert’ various forms of authority, patriarchy, western consumerism etc.

Now you’d be hard pressed to create a work of art which won’t be bought up by Russian billionaires or sovereign wealth funds looking to diversify their investment portfolio. Very difficult to escape form the process whereby everything becomes an investment, everything is monetised.

Art’s irrelevance

According to a press release, all the Tate locations had a total 7 million visitors in 2013/14. This is an extremely impressive achievement – especially the standout fact that Tate Modern is the most visited gallery of modern art in the world. Respect to the enormous achievements of Tate’s leadership and staff in reaching out to more people than ever before.

But I also read in today’s paper that Snapchat reported 6 billion views of videos on its digital platform, every day. It is sneaking up on Facebook which claims some 8 billion video views per day, and that some 500 million people use its video app every day. When I told my teenage son, he said had I read Pornhub’s results (much shared among his mates, apparently)?

Pornhub claims to be the world’s number one porn website and allows users to upload and share pornographic videos. In 2014 about 50 gigabytes of porn video was uploaded to the site every second. Over the course of the year 78.9 billion videos were viewed, 11 for every man, woman and child on the planet. The top two search terms were ‘teen’ and ‘lesbian’.

I love art and will continue to go to art galleries and support artists. I love the space, the quiet, the opportunity to admire beauty and reflect on interesting ideas. But when you situate traditional ‘art’ – small paintings and silent sculptures – in the context of this unprecedented tsunami of images, an unparalleled explosion of imagery flooding out of every screen into everyone’s faces all across the planet, the art of all of these artists doesn’t just not seem subversive: statistically, it doesn’t exist. Its impact is immeasurably tiny.

Judy Chicago’s funky car hoods, Jana Želibská’s dolly birds with mirror crotches, Dorothée Selz’s small photos of herself adopting glamour model poses – I like them: they’re funny, attractive to look at, inventive, cheeky, maybe they played their part in changing attitudes for the better. But to imagine that they are subverting anything in our time seems to me the height of self-delusion.

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